Category Archives: crowdsourcing

The noosphere of margins

If you don’t work in advertising or communications you’ve likely missed the enthusiasm among middle-aged men who wear jeans and black T-shirts about crowdsourcing — the idea that masses of people can be sorted to build better solutions at lower costs. It’s a play off the “wisdom of crowds,” where groups of people, each of whom has partial information and can make an informed best guess, often when averaged together can find a near-perfect answer. The world is filled with examples, from children trying to guess the number of marbles in a jar (the aggregate answer is almost always spot on) to markets of investors trying to gauge the future value of a stock (speculative bubbles aside, the way prices of pieces of companies adjust nearly instantly to new information is almost miraculous). Crowdsourcing expands this concept by making it an economic model: You set a prize, encourage thousands to contribute an answer, and after judging the collective input, opt for the top one. That is, instead of selecting the middling average of the response curve, you cherry-pick the best outlying result on the fringe.

Want a new cell phone design? Instead of paying teams of internal engineers, throw a contest, and some brilliant young design student from the crowd will raise her hand to knock your socks off.

All of this has excited the ad industry because it provides a fundamental restructuring of human creativity (the most positive reason) while also greatly reduces costs (useful if you’re managing agency human resources). Futurists also dig it because it pulls deliverables out of the noosphere — the “global consciousness” concept by Vladimir Vernadsky that we are moving into a third phase of the Earth’s development, after physical formation and biological evolution, to a higher form of collective intelligence. This feels trippy, perhaps, until you look out the window of a plane landing in JFK and see how tiny swarms of humans are acting collectively to terraform our planet, and then, holding that perspective, realize our species may be acting like bees with a hive mind. No less an organization than Princeton has set up 65 devices around the world that randomly generate numbers — and is monitoring them to see if some form of global consciousness is making those numbers less random. Really.

Crowdsourcing employee firings: A thought experiment
The trouble with group consciousness is sometimes it moves in ways that hurt individual participants. Here’s a thought experiment we’ve posed with Edward Boches, the Mullen agency creative chief who is a strong proponent of crowdsourcing: Imagine you run a business with 50 employees, each of whom you pay $52,000 a year or $1,000 per week. One day you decide to fire all your employees and instead hold a weekly global competition for each of their jobs, with a prize for each winner of $100. Thanks to nearly perfect information systems, thousands of people apply for each job post, and you have no trouble filling each slot. (There are lots of smart people starving in the world; now you find them and they find you.) Training would be required of course, but as part of your competition each winner must agree to conduct three weeks of home study, so all the fresh employees hit the ground running. Then, every future week, you fire everyone again, hold another competition, and hire a new crew of winners — ensuring a constant flow of improved ideas and talent, at a 90% payroll savings!

If information systems were perfect enough, this model could become real. But is it fair?

The economic challenge that few raise about crowdsourcing, or Chris Anderson’s broader theory that all services want to be free, is that there is some value in inefficiency — a value extracted from imperfect exchanges that is passed onward to support society. Your business exists because it charges a profit margin, and that profit exists only because you build and defend fiercely some form of inefficiency between supply and demand. If customers could get food teleported to their kitchen table from the farm fields in California, all the inefficiencies of transportation and packaging and storage would be gone — and all the margins of those businesses in the middle also. If your own customers could get what you produce without touching your operations, your source of income disappears. Do we want to live in a world where there is perfectly seamless transfer of goods, services and information? Or the real question is, can we?

Image: Pensiero

The Yelp transparency mistake

What should you learn from Yelp’s retreat today?

The business-review site Yelp has been getting smacked around by rumors that it rigged its review system, nasty allegations to be sure, perhaps a big misunderstanding from the small businesses it profiles who can be hurt badly by a negative appraisal or two. (Yelp has become a word-of-mouth powerhouse, now the 101st most popular web site in the United States with nearly 10 million unique monthly visitors. Imagine the angst if your little shop got a one-star rating on Yelp you didn’t know how to counter.)

So today Yelp announced it would back away from a key component of its advertising system: It will no longer allow advertisers to pick the first review that appears on their page — as in, previously if you paid Yelp cash, you got to select the best review for your own business and elevate it in the rankings, while your competitors who didn’t pay had to just suck up whatever consumers wrote. Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp’s co-founder and chief executive, was quoted in the NY Times as saying: “I hope that these changes will debunk some of the myths and conspiracy theories out there about Yelp and its advertising and whether those are linked.”

We’re not here to judge whether Yelp was wrong to previously allow advertisers to buy placement of favorable ratings; but we do note sowing confusion among customers is not a strong business model. Allegations are just that, and Yelp’s helpful business outreach manager Luther Lowe pointed us to 184 instances of Yelp advertising sponsors who had reviews stating “this place sucks.” The site boasts a complex business model that includes social networking, rewards for frequent reviews, “elite” status for the most loyal contributors, and a filtering system that must monitor more than 2 million business reviews for fair play.

To be fair, you try hosting that many rabble-induced ratings and see if you don’t tick off a few coffee shops.

But the lesson is clear: The perception of extortion, of unfair play, of biased material, of paid postings, is enough to break community trust. We heard it long before this latest news broke, months ago on a business trip in which a client raised doubts about whether to engage with the Yelp review system. “I’ve heard rumors that people pay to play,” she said, “and that model just doesn’t seem fair.” In an age of lightning-fast online tempests, the utmost transparency is required to keep your community happy. If you raise doubts about the rules of your game — say, by allowing some to pay to get better treatment in what is supposed to be an objective forum — you risk having to recut your business model.

Footnote: The New York Times asked its readers what they thought of Yelp. The responses show what happens when doubt catches fire.

Seeding nature in cities with geospatial analysis

When New York City first dreamed of a great Central Park in 1844, it began a 29-year massive landscaping process over 700 acres that required the demolition of entire villages. Cities today don’t have the luxury of three-decade timelines and vast spaces to move earth, and yet with urban manufacturing fading and populations rising, the need to give citizens healthy outdoor areas to breathe, exercise and congregate is more important than ever.

Local Code : Real Estates is a proposal to use geospatial analysis (sophisticated mapping) to pinpoint tiny sections of urbanity in New York, LA, Chicago and DC that have fallen into disarray — and then consider how to build networks of green spaces at the street level. Here’s what Revere Street in San Francisco would look like before and after renovation:

It’s an intriguing dream: hundreds of small, soccer-field- or street-sized parks giving residents local opportunities to experience nature. The designs would breathe life into the blighted areas of major cities which often have higher incidence of pollution, bad air quality and poor health. And because of the hyperlocal structure, each area of residents could weigh in with the balance of trees, grass, cobblestones, benches or sports facilities they’d want most. Rather than one vast park acting as a city’s heart, you’d have thousands of green pathways acting as arteries.

WPA2 : Local Code / Real Estates from Nicholas de Monchaux on Vimeo.

Via Emmanual Vivier.

DARPA crowdsources red balloons

To mark the 40th birthday of the Web, DARPA came up with mission impossible. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. Launched in 1958 after the U.S. got scared by Sputnik, it helped fund a little thing called computer networking that led to the Internet.

So on Oct. 29 DARPA created a test to see if groups of Internet users could solve thorny puzzles. It moored 10 red weather balloons across the continental U.S. — visible from roads, but enigmatic to anyone who didn’t know why — and offered a $40,000 prize to the first team to pinpoint all the balloons’ locations. DARPA said the competition “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.”

Sounds impossible. The United States’ landmass is 9.1 million square kilometers. Solving it would require harnessing huge crowds of observers with little incentive to share information and no clear way to reach them.

Yesterday, a team from MIT found all the locations.

Via @jowyang.

The awakening hive mind of Wikipedia

Crowdsourcing has gotten so much press this year that it’s easy to dismiss as a fad: you know, like Six Sigma leanness, 1to1 personalization, CRM customer management, it’s a clever term that simply recasts common dynamics of efficiency or connectedness. The skeptic thinks: It’s just a ploy by agencies for new buzz. The cynic agrees: Humans hunger for frameworks to understand the world because there is too much data coming in for anyone to digest without filters, and so when something slightly new seems to be happening — social media! augmented reality! — we produce new names and imagine, by our own novel sounds, that the rules of gravity have changed.

And then, like tulip bubbles, the fad passes.

But what if crowdsourcing is real?
What if humans, like ants or bees, are finally communicating in networks that produce a new form of hive mind? At 1:30 p.m. today, Nov. 5, a shooter struck the ranks of Fort Hood, Texas. By this evening, six hours later, Wikipedia had published a detailed analysis of the mass murder from a historical perspective tied to 22 published references. An army of volunteers had rushed to the online encyclopedia to post, for free, an evolving, informed, objective record of the events.

IDEO crowdsources the future of climate change

If you’ve read of prediction markets you know the minds of masses can be remarkably accurate in forecasting the future, say, U.S. elections or Wall Street’s reaction to congressional failure. Now the innovative consultancy IDEO is inviting minds to game out the future of climate change on the new blog Anyone can submit ideas here and the most provoking posts make it to the site — like this one, The Commute, by Martin Zabaleta and Jonah Houston. The site also could be a recruitment screener by IDEO itself for the bright dreamers of the future. Innovators, game on.

Schwarzenegger taps Twitter to fix California

California is dying. If you haven’t heard, the state is in a $21 billion hole after years of voters bringing expensive spending measures to ballot without any requirement of finding funding to pay for them. Thanks to their crazy Constitution, California voters can lock spending in for the future, but taxes to pay for that spending can only be raised if two-thirds of both houses of legislature agree — a near impossibility. If California were a family, the kids would be eating candy every night for dinner while the parents argue over who pays for groceries on the credit card.

So Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves a hat tip for bypassing everyone and soliciting ideas from the masses via Twitter. California’s new web site crowdsources potential solutions; anyone can submit an idea by adding the hashtag #myidea4ca to a tweet, and the message will appear on the site for voting up or down by other viewers. Because the site has tweaked Twitter to allow a voting mechanism, the best (or at least most popular) suggestions float to the top. So far California has received 910 ideas from the public, including using aqueducts to generate hydro power, eliminating agencies that are duplicated by the federal government, releasing non-violent prisoners from jail, and, of course, legalizing drugs.

It’s worth pointing out that California is using Twitter as a listening device here, not a PR broadcast vehicle. Instead of pushing out hyperbole about how one party wants to fix things, it’s asking everyone to pitch in their own ideas. Giant organizations in trouble that listen, instead of spin — imagine that.

Crowdsourcing Star Wars

Casy Pugh wants to refilm Star Wars (perhaps to prove it can be done better than the last three overwrought prequels). So he’s crowdsourcing the effort, inviting people to download 473 separate 15-second clips of the movie and redo them. When done, Casey will reassemble the clips for a result Coolhunting’s Mike Frank predicts will be hilarious.

It’s all a fun experiment, but you can imagine a world in which some network outsources a complex film production to hundreds of talented amateurs. With the right incentive and competition, beauty might happen.

Iran observers vote #cnnfail

CNN felt the wrath of crowds this weekend when the cable network skimped on news from Iran. Reports popped up elsewhere that Tehran had riots over a potentially corrupt election, yet by late Saturday CNN still had scant coverage.

So Twitter filled up with irate protests followed by the hashtag #cnnfail. “Users of the microblogging service were incredulous at the near total lack of coverage,” wrote Daniel Terdiman in CNET, by “a network that cut its teeth with on-the-spot reporting from the Middle East.”

Was it all hyperbole — hypersensitive Americans overreacting to just another mangled foreign election? Perhaps. But it’s a warning sign for any business that crowds are out there watching, armed with new social media technology, ready to hold you accountable. Today, two days later, is following the Iran protests carefully as the top story.

Image: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images via

A year of edits in OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a collaborative, user-generated project similar to Wikipedia in which volunteers can upload GPS data on road locations — creating perhaps the world’s most accurate map. The video above shows one year of edits from users around the globe (with white flashes showing map edit uploads). It’s a brilliant snapshot of collective intelligence at work, with a bit of dark irony: all this labor was done amidst a global recession for free.

Video animation by